The beauty of dif­fer­ence


Joel-Peter Witkin has spent his ca­reer mak­ing pho­tographs with con­tro­ver­sial im­agery. He in­vests his im­ages with a sense of the in­nate beauty and hu­man­ity of his sub­jects, which in­clude trans­sex­ual, in­ter­sex, and am­putee mod­els, as well as corpses and body parts in evoca­tive ar­range­ments that ref­er­ence re­li­gious themes and mas­ter­pieces from art his­tory. Cen­ter, the Santa Fe-based or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports in­ter­na­tional pho­tog­ra­phers, honors Witkin at the Re­view Santa Fe Photo Fes­ti­val, which runs through Sun­day, Oct. 21. The tick­eted event, which takes place at the Drury Plaza Ho­tel at 7:30 p.m. Satur­day, Oct. 20, in­cludes a talk by writer Eu­ge­nia Parry and a pre­sen­ta­tion by Witkin. His ex­hi­bi­tion Splen­dor & Mis­ery is also on view at El Museo Cul­tural de Santa Fe through Nov. 4. On the cover is a de­tail of Witkin’s 2007 Woman with Small Breasts, a hand-tinted sil­ver gelatin print with col­lage el­e­ments.

Ire­mem­ber, many years ago, see­ing a pho­to­graph by Joel-Peter Witkin of a woman’s por­trait in pro­file. She was el­e­gantly posed nude, save for black evening gloves and a white scarf wrapped around her head and neck in such a way that only her face was ex­posed. I saw the im­age in a Witkin show at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art. Star­ing in­tently at the im­age, which is called Pru­dence, two things struck me. One was that her head — with a face as glam­orous as a movie star’s from the golden age of cinema — seemed oddly dis­tended from her body. The other thing was that an­other head was af­fixed to the back of her own. The sec­ond head was dark, as though in shadow, which is why I didn’t no­tice it at first. Its face, un­like the first, was blind­folded, its mouth agape. The im­age as a whole was one of con­trasts, a Janus-like vi­sion of beauty and hor­ror. I won­dered if the scarf barely dis­guised an un­com­fort­able truth: that the grace­ful nude with her long black gloves was only a de­cap­i­tated corpse. But my im­pres­sions of ar­che­typal beauty and mys­tery re­mained.

“I con­sider my­self a kind of pho­to­graphic drama­tist,” said Witkin, who is based in Al­bu­querque. “I don’t pho­to­graph nice things, timid things. I pho­to­graph things that are chal­leng­ing and pro­mote thought and in­di­vid­ual reck­on­ing. I think that’s what art should do.” Witkin, whose ex­hi­bi­tion Splen­dor &

Mis­ery is cur­rently on view at El Museo Cul­tural de Santa Fe, is be­ing hon­ored on Satur­day, Oct. 20, by Cen­ter as part of the an­nual Re­view Santa Fe Photo Fes­ti­val. The event, which takes place at the Drury Plaza Ho­tel, in­cludes a re­cep­tion, din­ner, and talk by writer Eu­ge­nia Parry fol­lowed by a pre­sen­ta­tion by Witkin. Pru­dence was nei­ther the first nor the last time Witkin has pho­tographed a hu­man corpse, dis­em­bod­ied head, or sev­ered ex­trem­ity. The Kiss (1982), Har­vest (1984), and Anna Akhma­tova (1998), all of which are in the ex­hibit at El Museo, in­cor­po­rate these el­e­ments. But Witkin’s in­ter­est isn’t in mor­bid­ity. These im­ages have a pedi­gree — a con­nec­tion to es­tab­lished artis­tic tra­di­tions. Take, for in­stance, the Ital­ian

natura morta (dead na­ture), known in English by the more palat­able but per­haps less hon­est term “still life.” Paint­ings of natura morta typ­i­cally de­pict ob­jects such as cut flow­ers and picked fruits in for­mal aes­thetic ar­range­ments.

Witkin’s works also call to mind the Dutch van­i­tas paint­ings of the 16th and 17th cen­turies — com­po­si­tions de­pict­ing ob­jects that are sym­bolic of death and hu­man tran­sience. Har­vest and Anna Akhma­tova, named for the Rus­sian poet, pay ex­plicit ho­mage to such tra­di­tions; they are, es­sen­tially, still lifes. But the artist’s sub­ject mat­ter is very much of the present mo­ment. “I don’t think art has ever been made by any­one at any time that’s prais­ing ug­li­ness or some­thing that goes against the hu­man spirit,” he said. “I think all of it has a pos­i­tive el­e­ment. The ex­pres­sion ‘By their works you will know them,’ I think, is a way of defin­ing art. A per­son makes some­thing at any given time in his­tory and it’s ba­si­cally to­tally re­flec­tive of that per­son’s life, their spirit, and what kind of vis­ceral and phys­i­cal re­ac­tion they’re mak­ing to any kind of hu­man en­deavor or event in his­tory or time.”

Witkin’s state­ment about the hu­man spirit is telling and re­veal­ing in that his live mod­els — which in­clude peo­ple with phys­i­cal de­for­mi­ties, hermaphrodites, peo­ple of short stature, and fetishists who are par­tial to all man­ner of kinks — are al­ways treated with in­her­ent re­spect. He’s mind­ful, even rev­er­ent, of their hu­man­ness, a fact re­flected in com­po­si­tions in­spired by fa­mous works of art. For ex­am­ple, his

Las Men­i­nas from 1987 is based on Span­ish Baroque painter Diego Velázquez’s 1656 orig­i­nal, which shows In­fanta Mar­garet Theresa, daugh­ter of King Philip IV of Spain, at­tended by her en­tourage. In the place of the

fu­ture Holy Ro­man Em­press, Witkin pho­tographed a dou­ble am­putee. By re­cast­ing fig­ures from cel­e­brated his­toric works with con­tem­po­rary in­di­vid­u­als who rep­re­sent a broad spec­trum of hu­man­ity, Witkin ex­alts those in­di­vid­u­als.

Witkin sees be­yond the sur­face, where most get trapped in their prej­u­dices. “In Western art, you have Hierony­mus Bosch show­ing peo­ple who are very dif­fer­ent phys­i­cally: cripples, et cetera. I think what that shows is the fact that, re­gard­less of what phys­i­cal­ity a per­son has, art re­lated to any per­son is about the soul of that per­son, not the way they look per se. What’s dif­fer­ent about a per­son in a way that’s con­sid­ered art or beau­ti­ful is the out­side or ex­te­rior iden­tity, and also the in­ner spir­i­tual fac­tor. Any at­tempt to make some­thing that doesn’t have the lat­ter pur­pose is empty. It’s a waste of ma­te­rial and time. What I want to do, and al­ways have worked for, is to show the beauty of dif­fer­ence.”

It isn’t any won­der that de­spite win­ning sup­port from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts four times, Witkin’s work is more warmly re­ceived in Europe than in the U.S., where it is con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial. The artist reg­u­larly shows at the Bau­doin Le­bon


gallery in Paris. “I’ve had more shows in Europe than I have in the United States,” he said. “The Euro­peans are far more ac­cept­ing and ma­ture about sub­ject mat­ter. We’re pu­ri­tan­i­cal here, to a great ex­tent.” In 1990, Witkin was knighted by the French gov­ern­ment; a decade later, he was awarded Com­man­der of Arts and Let­ters of France.

It takes only a brief pe­rusal of Witkin’s oeu­vre to see that re­li­gious iconog­ra­phy, par­tic­u­larly of the Judeo-Chris­tian her­itage of Western cul­ture, is a reap­pear­ing mo­tif. Por­trait of Joel, a self-por­trait from 1985, shows the pho­tog­ra­pher don­ning a mask to which a small fig­ure of the cru­ci­fied Christ is af­fixed. Witkin’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with spir­i­tu­al­ity is a pri­mary theme. Im­ages of Christ and the cru­ci­fix­ion have oc­curred through­out his ca­reer.

His Sav­ior of the Pri­mates (1982) is a pow­er­ful im­age in which Christ is de­picted as a simian — masked, just as Witkin is in the self-por­trait — and de­picted hang­ing from the cross. Christ, in scrip­ture, refers to him­self as the son of man — but “man,” af­ter all, is him­self a pri­mate. “The un­der­ly­ing re­al­ity is that I make pho­tographs that are, to me, not only im­por­tant to make, but have a his­tor­i­cal and re­li­gious pres­ence,” he said. “I con­sider my­self a Chris­tian artist, and I’m re­act­ing to this time and life. For me, I make the work not for peo­ple’s re­ac­tions but to cre­ate truth as I see it.”

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